Could a sociologist help petroleum people polish their clean-tech image?

“Othering” is a theoretical notion studied in the social sciences.

In the natural sciences, perhaps not so much.

And yet “othering” can be used to understand so much of what passes for energy discourse in Canada these days—particularly in terms of tension and polarization—in a sector where the natural sciences sensibilities ought to prevail.

Green energy and clean tech are good examples.

Here's why. And here's how.

Othering is about declaring something or someone to be the “other” and in so doing, reduce that other’s ability to enjoy the same virtues to which you have laid claim. British sociology professor Yiannis Gabriel explains it succinctly: “Othering is the process of casting a group, an individual or an object into the role of the ‘other’ and establishing one’s own identity through opposition to and, frequently, vilification of this Other.”

So, green energy proponents claim exclusivity over the notion of greenness and so by default create the “other”—that is, a sector (petroleum) that doesn't share the moral characteristics and attributes of being green. Othering is at its core about identity creation; that is development of identity ideals that are often more utopian than real.

Indeed, othering goes further than simply creating the perfect identity; otherers, as Gabriel argues, reinforce the notion of their own virtues by casting aspersions on those they seek to oppose. Thus, by definition, the oil and gas sector’s collective identity is one that is evil, dirty and malevolent etc.—the opposite of the ideal renewably clean and green persona.

If all this sounds hokey and abstract, look around you and think how we talk about energy in Canada. Think about how green constituencies are being built on the backs of oil and gas and pipeline sectors through denigration and vilification.

Many politicians and activists “other” the petroleum sector, as do the more extremist environmentalists.

When Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson pushes his city council to endorse getting the city off fossil-fuel natural gas, he is othering; having laid claim to occupy some moral high ground that is his alone. Having the city weaned from natural gas, his implicit contention is that everyone who opposes, or even objects, to the concept is somehow an environmental pillager.

Othering is well understood by sociologists and anthropologists. Not by reservoir engineers and geologists; the former study people and the ways in which they think and behave; the latter rocks and molecules and the ways in which they react and respond.

That dichotomy makes a world of difference when it comes to discourse and the way narratives are shaped—and who is believed. Technical folks tend toward algebraic communication; social folks opt for emotive tactics. Confoundingly, ordinary Canadians worry less about how balanced equations do environmental good than shrill proclamations with no factual backing.

Perhaps this is why the petroleum sector’s own cleanness and greenness fails for the most part to gain much traction beyond the sector itself—when industry and government are pouring millions into the sector's evolution.

Why does this all matter?

History will tell us—say 25 years out—that in energy choices, we are currently in times of profound and fundamental change. We get this of course. What we don't get is the order of magnitude of that change and the height of the stakes involved. If those stakes are not actually survival, it’s some status remarkably similar.

History will also tell us the sector’s failure to coalesce around singular and unified messaging will also in large measure contribute to its own erosion.

We’re a sector that speaks with too many voices and mixes its messages. Even when the underlying messages may be in essence similar, it’s difficult to sort out for ordinary folks trying their best to understand what petroleum people are trying to say.

We have our own forms of shrillness, indeed extremism, that many find off-putting, but for the most part it is fragmentation that will hurt us most. This lack of a unified voice is particularly frustrating for companies and innovators whose own efforts are testament to how far the sector has actually advanced toward cleaner and greener horizons.

At stake is trust. The otherers are adept at claiming trust, thereby denying it as attribute worthy of the other. It’s also key for the petroleum sector to figure out who exactly are the diehard otherers; the ones with which effective engagement promises little beyond diminishing returns. Within that calculation comes an assessment of who the otherers are trying to win over; that’s the real audience.

But here’s the reality: there is no hard and fast boundary between clean energy and petroleum-derived energy. Think of Canada’s energy system as a massive series of Venn diagrams. It is, in fact, a system of systems and in a Venn context, there is much overlap between energy types. It is in these overlap zones that systems connect between people, products and processes. It is also within these overlap zones that the stories of the petroleum sector’s advances can be found as well as the code to how energy systems evolve synchronously.

Why we’re not better at elevating those stories onto trust platforms coherently as a sector remains a puzzler. Meanwhile, the otherers maintain the upper narrative hand and the petroleum sector remains mired in its own storytelling and narrative inertia.

Perhaps a sociologist could help us figure it out.

Bill Whitelaw is Managing Director, Strategy & Business Development at geoLOGIC Systems Ltd. & JWN Energy. Bill is a director on many industry sector boards including the Canadian Society for Unconventional Resources and the Canadian Petroleum Hall of Fame. He speaks frequently on the subjects of social licence, innovation and technology, and energy supply networks.

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